| Erfurt Laboratory for Empirical Research, Philosophische Fakultät, Seminar für Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, SPF Bildung. Schule. Verhalten., Forschung

New study shows impact of "familiarity" aspect on COVID protection behavior

During the COVID-19 pandemic, protective behaviors, such as keeping your distance, were important to slow the spread of the virus. But in private encounters, these were more often neglected. So does familiarity with other people influence our perception of risk, and thus our behavior? A new study has investigated just that and yields surprising results.

Based on the social identity model of risk taking and the theory of the behavioral immune system, the researchers from the University of Erfurt, the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine and the Robert Koch Institute assumed in their study that greater familiarity with other people would lead to a stronger sense of connectedness and reduce situational avoidance of pathogens. But what does that mean exactly? The study showed that a closer bond can actually lead to a lower perceived risk of infection and less protective action.

Two experiments involving a total of more than 2,000 people showed that the negative impact of greater familiarity on perceived risk of infection and protective behavior can be explained by an increased sense of attachment and a lower sense of situational avoidance of pathogens. An additional survey of more than 23,000 participants found that familiarity with others played a greater role in explaining protective behaviors than attitudes toward these behaviors or the pandemic situation itself.

Frederike Taubert, a member of the research team explains, "Our findings are important to better understand the processes that can lead to an explosion of infections after social gatherings. In this way, better infection control can be achieved in the future. In addition, we were able to show that especially when we are with friends and family, we should sometimes act against our instincts and pay more attention to protective behaviors. Especially during flu season, this is important so that we also protect the people we feel most connected to."

Taubert, F., Sprengholz, P., Korn, L., Eitze, S., Wiedermann, M. & Betsch, C. (2023). Situational pathogen avoidance mediates the impact of social connectedness on preventive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientific Reports 13, 2418.

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